Archaeologists can tell you that dogs hoodwinked humans into feeding and housing them at least 14,000 years and our entwined histories likely go back a bit farther.
These days our doggos are primarily pets. But, in the Middle Ages dogs played important roles. For instance, they played musical instruments, battled rabbits, joined monastic orders and preached to prairie fowl, became doctors, and were generally epic.
Okay, not really. But dogs WERE primarily working dogs and bred specifically for their needed tasks.
There were not the number of breeds we have today, but a 15th-century work, Boke of St Albans, lists common types of dogs. Some are breeds we would recognize today, others seem to be groupings based on their appearance or their function. For instance, the list includes mongrels, greyhounds, terriers, spaniels, and mastiffs, as well as lymers, kennets, and raches, and further includes dung-heap dogs and butcher’s hounds.
What could Medieval doggos do? On English Dogges is a 16th-century book by John Caius which mentions work like messenger and water-drawer. He also mentions tinker’s curs who helped carry buckets. And turn-spit dogs (probably my personal favorite) who ran in a wheel to turn large spits in manor house kitchens.
“Defending-dogs”, or guard dogs, were very common. And for the aristocracy, hunting dogs were a must. On farms, doggos helped out with livestock wrangling.
SAD SIDENOTE: Some of these Good Boys (and Girls) were used in dog fighting and bear baiting rings. Luckily, these are no longer common sport. Doggos have been good to us, we should be good to them!
While there were loads of working dogs, lap dogs did exist, especially among women of the aristocracy, as well as monks and nuns (who also kept cats and birds…add toads in there and monasteries were practically Hogwarts).
In the 14th century, the Archbishop of York felt forced to declare that those who had taken orders should quit bringing their pets to service. (Apparently no 3rd grader had gleefully explained to him that Dog is God spelled backward – a thing that happened to me just last week)
But, of course, there were those folks who felt that dogs should only be working animals and wrote snitty-grams about how having dogs as pets kept the good and Godly folks of Europe from proper noble pursuits (we can only assume these were cat people). One author referred to pet dogs as “instruments of follie to play and dallie withal, in trifling away the treasure of time…” I imagine the OG poster also likely had a permanent scowl.
In the Middle Ages, doggos were very much a symbol of loyalty because DUH!
We are regaled with stories of loyal dogs protecting their owner. For instance, the dog of a murdered man spotted the murder is a crowd of onlookers and attacked the man, biting and pinning him until he confessed. Similarly, a Berber king in the early middle ages was captured, but hundreds of his hounds attacked those responsible and were able to secure the king’s freedom and escape.
Even in the Islamic regions, where dogs were categorized as unclean animals, people totally kept them as pets and even wrote advice on proper care. Because THAT FACE!
How good were the good boys and girls of the Middle Ages? Let me introduce you to Saint Guinefort.
Everyone remember the bit in Lady and the Tramp where Lady protects the infant from rats but then gets blamed for upsetting the child? Image that, but a snake instead of rats, the infant is thought dead instead of startled. And, the heroic dog is killed instead of put out in the yard. Once the infant was found very much alive, the family buried the dogs with honours and then apparently the dog produced miracles after death and was beloved enough by the folks of Lyon, France that he was (temporarily) sainted.
The “faithful hound” mythos is found throughout Medieval literature, all telling similar stories around the same theme as Guinefort.
Elaborate tombs containing pet remains were en vogue amongst the wealthy in certain places. And you can find dogs as part of effigies pretty commonly through the time period and across Europe.
What did folks name their canine companions? Anne Boleyn has a pupper named Purkoy (a pun on the French “pourquoi”).
Here is a non-exhaustive list of names referenced in Medieval and Renaissance literature and documents:
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